It took me two different screenings to fully absorb Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, one being a midnight screening and the other being a repeat screening with my Dad (it’s one of my favorite traditions). I actually had a chance recently to re-watch the trilogy, and the latter two still stand out as my favorites. I really dug the supernatural parts of the story like Davy Jones and his crew and how things slowly built toward that colossal, one-hour scuffle between the Dutchman, the Black Pearl, and the East India Trading Company. Sure, the plot’s pretty pressed even at three hours, but it was still a larger-than-life conclusion to one of my favorite “trilogies” growing up. Now, even with Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom gone, we find ourselves at a fourth installment. As with any fourth installment where you’re breaking free of your “told and done” story of your trilogy, by the time the ending credits go up the viewer has to ask, “was it worth it, or should they have stopped while they were ahead?” Unlike a lot of other franchises, I’d like to think Pirates of the Caribbean has more longevity than other series. I could almost picture an elderly Geoffrey Rush opening up his storybook entitled “The Many Adventures of (Captain) Jack Sparrow” to tell his grandchildren of the many stories, all while sitting next to an open fire in a wingback chair. After defeating what was essentially the high sea’s equivalent of Satan and the Turners are out of the picture, Jack Sparrow, his First Mate Gibbs, and Privateer Captain Barbossa, now working for the Royal Navy, are all out to find the mythical Fountain of Youth. One of the reasons the second film in the series, Dead Man’s Chest, is still my favorite is because there’s one central goal in that film to find the chest of Davy Jones. We’re told whoever finds the chest essentially owns the sea, and no matter what’s going on it’s always going back to that main objective. I was relieved to find On Stranger Tides works on that same level in a sense, although things are a little bit twistier along the way. Johnny Depp returns of course as Captain Jack Sparrow, and it feels a bit redundant to talk about his performance. Sure the character’s starting to show its age, but you can’t hide that smile on your face seeing this man’s mastery of the myth that is Sparrow, he just believes in it so much, probably even more so since he was more than likely paid more to come back for this round-about. While Kevin McNally has had better turns as Gibbs, Jack’s best friend, his determination is really admired. If you’ve ever seen Geoffrey Rush in an interview or in another role and then watched a Pirates of the Caribbean film, you’ll swear you’re seeing a different person. It’s really a shame this guy hasn’t been recognized yet for this awesome role especially after four films. Even if he’s pushing his later 60s, it’s inspiring to see this guy put so much effort forth as Barbossa, and it pays off as he’s still the most developed character on the screen. Just that laugh of his in the final five minutes of the movie brings me back to 2006 where he made a similar “comeback” that caused a few gasps. Now I’ll go ahead and pick this bone, that the exclusion of certain Black Pearl members was noticeable. I can’t really blame the writers for not having the Turners in the film anymore considering how their story ended in At World’s End, but the fact that Pintel and Ragetti are nowhere to be found in this film is by far it’s biggest sin. There’s a story twist revealed at the end that potentially explains their absence, but it’s sort of like having a college graduation party where the two funniest guys from your dorm hall didn’t show up. Ian McShane joined the cast this time around as the main villain of the film, the dreaded Blackbeard. He does a pretty serviceable job as the nasty, remorseless pirate, but it’s a pretty tough act to follow Bill Nighy’s impeccable definition of Davy Jones. Penelope Cruz pops in as the former love interest to Jack/swash-buckling heroine Angelica, and gives the screen plenty of pop as a great piece of eye candy. She also fits into the whole mesh of the Pirates lore remarkably well.
Along with Cruz and McShane are a slew of new concepts to the film. I’ll concede that a lot of these ideas work, but certain structures just aren’t set up and followed through on. I had a lot of fun with the new mermaid subplot to the film, and I think there was a good amount of focus put into that on a writing level. The mermaid attack scene that’s shown a lot in the trailer isn’t quite as memorable as I’d like, but is creepy and diverse enough to warrant the inclusion. A lot of my friends that have seen the film liken the new characters to “mermaid vampires”, and without getting too nerdy on what exactly constitutes a vampire, that pretty much hits the nail on the head. They mold this idea together with our new “replacement” for Will Turner, a missionary that’s been imprisoned on Blackbeard’s ship that ends up “fancying” the mermaid Blackbeard imprisons for the Fountain voyage. While the romance never really meant a whole lot to me and I never really became that invested in it, it does have its sweet moments here and there that help it stay relevant and interesting, even if that particular story ends in a head-turning way that I won’t spoil here. Like I went over earlier Blackbeard is a pretty convincing villain mainly thanks to McShane’s own ability as an actor, but aside from a few moments of the film we’re never really given that much reason to be afraid of him. Sure, his boat has a flamethrower, and sure, he controls his ship with his sword and can bring the dead back to life, but aside from a few novelty moments you’ll wonder what the big deal is about “the pirate all pirates fear”. These ideas aren’t executed poorly by any means, but they lack some of the legroom we got with some of the newer notions from the other movies. This also sort of comes back to the script that handles a few of these plot developments a little clumsily. With Barbossa’s story we’re never really given a reason he’s working for the British Navy until the climax of the film, which adds a little too much mystery to his character, if that’s even possible. There also aren’t many stakes for Jack Sparrow this entire time; he’s almost an observer to a lot of the action. There are a few other plot contrivances that feel just a little phoned-in with this being a fourth installment and all. But for every new plot element that didn’t really feel all the way developed, there were some awesome inclusions like the Spanish Conquistador involvement that takes a surprise turn near the end or just how beautiful some of these new sets looked, in particular Blackbeard’s rust-colored ship. The film also hits the nail on the head in capturing the Pirates of the Caribbean humor that always keeps things at a level, energetic tone. In Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3 there was always one big set piece that I enjoyed, whether that was the water wheel chase in Dead Man’s Chest or the hour-long Maelstrom Battle in At World’s End, but I didn’t find that to be the case in On Stranger Tides. There are a handful of cool action moments, but never one that stood out more than the others aside from the London chase at the film’s intro. I did have way more fun with this than I thought I was going to, but the thought of considering what this series would have been like at just three films crossed my mind a time or two. I don’t think the film is as “unnecessary” or “lazy” as a lot of people seem to point out, I think it’s worth it’s weight in fun and intrigue. It has its moments of slothfulness that’s come to be expected when a series is practically a decade old, but it never became so apparent that the film lost its zeal to me. In the end I think that’s what charmed me most, the enjoyable and often “storybook” characteristics of the film. I wouldn’t call Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides a “great” film, but it’s definitely “good”, and it succeeds in pleasing its swash-buckling, pleasure-seeking audience including myself. It does have it’s fair share of problems, but most of them just came back to what appears to be conflict on a writing level where there seemed to be trouble deciding where to take the series now. While it’s showing it’s age, for a fourth installment it’s not half bad. I could see them doing this series on for at least a handful of other films, whether that’s continuing off of the post-credits chin-scratcher or, as I would prefer, having Captain Jack go on other quests for Pirate lore and booty. Heck, I’d even watch a film with just Geoffrey Rush in it as Barbossa. Who knows, the next Pirates go-round might just be its finest if they keep preserving the film’s fun nature it’s held onto so well, but work a little bit more on how they incorporates the new ideas that’s keeping it so fresh. Keep all these things in line and I’d be sorely remiss to ever walk the plank, that is unless you don’t brink back Pintel and Ragetti.
4 out of 5